Chick-fil-A and comedian Daniel Tosh contracted a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease and attracted plenty of public outrage. Tosh threatened gang rape on comedy club patrons, and Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy insisted that his god is the only one that can define marriage. Tosh’s halfhearted apology tweet has instigated calls to have his Comedy Central clip show cancelled, and he must be feeling the pressure since he had all the rape jokes edited out of the series premiere of his new adult cartoon. Now we have calls for boycotts and old-school lunch counter sit-ins of every Chick-fil-A location in America.
I’ve noticed a very sharp division of opinion on Tosh's controversial joke and Cathy's opposition to same-sex marriage. For their supporters, the issue seems to be free speech. People defend Tosh's right as a comedian and social commentator to speak his mind and Cathy's right to speak about his religion at will. Supporters find the boycotts and public protests to be overkill, a soap opera response to hearing something they don’t like. They feel that those who are angry at these two are trying to take free speech away from them.
American activist groups—in this case, feminists and the GLBTQ—are suddenly coming under fire for doing what they’ve been doing for over a century: speaking up. It’s become a war of Us Against Them, fodder for the next Rush Limbaugh broadcast. It’s getting to the point now that people are openly referring to activist groups and their demographics as “whiny minorities” who are never happy with anything. Old high school friends flood my newsfeed with pictures of Ron Paul and poorly Photoshopped macros related to the Federal Reserve. I recently defriended someone for all-caps yelling at me about how it will eventually be illegal to be a white male in America. Suddenly minorities are being accused of trying to silence the masses, and it’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.
No one wants to take Tosh’s speech away or put Chick-fil-A out of business. Also, no one is interested in Chick-fil-A catering their leather convention or Tosh sponsoring free mammograms. The public outcry has nothing to do with wanting people to be silenced or put out of work. Speaking for myself and others who take issue with Tosh and Cathy, the biggest problem is that these two are public figures who are using dangerous and (in the case of Tosh) downright hateful speech in forums that make them all too visible to the masses.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?" Tosh said when a woman in the audience objected to a rape joke. "Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” This was not a joke for the woman, who had to leave the show for her own sense of safety, but a taunt meant to hit her where it hurts, to shut her up and put her in her place. That is what hate speech is designed to do, making Tosh’s words fit the definition perfectly.
“I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about,” Cathy said on Ken Coleman's show. That isn’t a hateful statement, but it is most certainly an inflammatory one, as it shows how stifling and small Cathy’s worldview must be. He can’t acknowledge that marriage is older than his religion, and therefore his church doesn’t own it. And besides, nothing’s sacred about an institution that fails about 40 percent of the time. Would you keep a car that didn't start 40 percent of the time? People are upset with Cathy, not because he said something they don’t like, but because a statement like that does not acknowledge the existence of the whiny minorities to whom this issue is important.
Hate speech like Tosh’s is dangerous because it’s designed to do nothing but hurt, and speaking out against it seems to inspire a certain defensiveness from those who support it. I’ve encountered comments from men who have daughters and claim not to give two craps about sexual violence and rape culture in America, saying that these are made-up issues and that rape doesn’t happen much anyway—it actually happens to 1 out of every 5 women in America—so why are we complaining anyway? Been raped? Get a therapist and shut up! Don’t take my speech away!
Tosh is one of the most popular comedians among young America today, and some young people really are stupid enough to emulate attitudes that they encounter in the mass media. Rape culture is our tendency to normalize and sexualize violence against women, and that’s what we participate in when men let their friends harass women on the street or when we immediately think of anyone making an accusation of rape or sexual assault as a liar. Rape culture is systemic in America, much like racism, and we can dismantle it by responsibly addressing attempts to perpetuate it.
Cathy’s comments are just as dangerous because—and I hate to use an argument so clichéd, but it works—they literally go against two of the main principles on which America was founded: diversity and inclusion. Naïve or not, the American “melting pot” ideal is something that our country has strived for since the first Americans realized that deceiving and murdering the natives was bad, and the hardest part of that strife is often just the simple demand it puts on the status quo—to listen to the whiny minorities and drop one’s defenses long enough to make a positive change.
To those who prefer the status quo: I know it’s hard. You feel like everyone’s picking on you, as if you’re wrong just for existing. You can’t even tell a chick she’s hot without being called sexist, and you can’t even use the r-word without your little sister crying for some reason. Seriously, all “we” want is to be heard and to feel safe, OK? As a female, I’d love to stop worrying when I’m walking alone at night. As a queer person, I’d love to be able to visit my partner in the hospital or be eligible benefits upon her death. As an assault survivor, I’d like to be able to share my story with others without worrying about hearing, “Well, that’s what YOU say, and you shouldn’t have stayed over at his house anyway.” Those are totally fair requests that do not take your rights away. All you have to do is listen.